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Helen Bentley memorial services dominated by laughter, not tears

Former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who died in August, will be remembered Friday at public and private memorial services on Baltimore's waterfront.

Maryland gave Helen Delich Bentley a formal send-off Friday at two memorial services dominated by laughter rather than tears.

Several hundred invited guests gathered at the Cruise Maryland Terminal in the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore on Friday morning to remember the former congresswoman, who died Aug. 6 of brain cancer at age 92.

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There were prayers. There were patriotic songs. But mostly there were Helen stories.

There were stories about her kindness, her generosity and her dedication to the port she championed for more than 70 years. There were stories about her late-night phone calls, gruff voice and colorful language. There were stories about her dogs and how she sometimes treated them with more kindness than she did the people she loved.

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It was Helen Delich Bentley, unvarnished, from people who adored her.

"There truly was never anyone like Helen Bentley, and she was one of a kind," said Gov. Larry Hogan, who told the story of her rise from a rookie reporter covering the waterfront for The Baltimore Sun to a five-term member of the House of Representatives.

Hogan said that early in her career, Bentley confronted a "glass ceiling."

"She smashed though it like a wrecking ball," he said. "She was as tough as nails, and she wouldn't back down."

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Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Bentley's longtime congressional colleague and friend, spoke of a woman who was on a first-name basis with her city and state.

"She was simply Helen. She didn't need a last name," said Mikulski, a Democrat who worked closely with Bentley, a Republican, on issues affecting the port of Baltimore. "When you said, 'I got a call from Helen,' everybody knew what that was."

Mikulski recalled a meeting she and Bentley held with a colonel from the Army Corps of Engineers about a port-related issue. When Mikulski described Bentley making a "quiet, refined" appeal to the officer, the crowd burst into laughter.

The result of that appeal, Mikulski recalled, was that the colonel called his general to ask permission to either give Bentley and Mikulski what they wanted or be transferred to a war zone.

"She was the Helen that launched a thousand ships," Mikulski said.

David Blumberg, a longtime friend who spoke on behalf of Bentley's family, recalled interviewing with her when he applied for an internship at the Federal Maritime Commission. At the time, Bentley headed that agency.

Bentley's question, he said, was: "What candy-ass private school did your parents pay for?"

James J. White, executive director of the port, said Bentley was an "incredible force for us." He said other port directors from across the United States were envious that Baltimore had such an advocate.

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"We were the only port in the United States that had a resource like Helen Bentley," he said.

Like other speakers, he told a story of Bentley's brusque telephone manners. He recalled receiving a 3 a.m. phone call from Bentley, who was in Switzerland.

She wanted to know the name of a business contact. He told her. Click.

Even the clergy had irreverent stories to tell.

Monsignor John L. FitzGerald, executive director of the Apostleship of the Sea, recounted his discussion with Bentley about what her memorial would be like.

FitzGerald said he told her: "I don't know if I can give a blessing at your funeral. I think I'm supposed to give an exorcism."

When the memorial ended, Bentley's ashes were carried from the terminal to a nearby tug for her last cruise. She was going to Fort McHenry for a public memorial service in the afternoon.

More than 100 people gathered at the fort under bright blue skies, a day Bentley might have ordered up herself.

They heard a bipartisan political duo — former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger — spin Bentley yarns.

Ehrlich described how he pulled off a surprise at the 300th anniversary of the port by announcing the state would name it after Bentley.

"I got her," Ehrlich said. "She shut the hell up for almost a week, which for me was a win-win."

Ehrlich also recalled the relationship between Bentley and the late Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a staunch friend despite occasional shouting matches.

"The language would make a sailor blush," Ehrlich said.

Ruppersberger defeated Bentley when she attempted to regain her 2nd Congressional District seat in 2002 — her last run for office. He said she quickly became a friend and a mentor. He described what happened when the Motor Vehicle Administration announced plans to issue a license plate commemorating the port's 300th anniversary.

"I'm taking plate 300 and you're taking 299, and you're going to like it," Ruppersberger said in a spot-on imitation of Bentley's gravelly voice.

Ruppersberger said it was because of Bentley's foresight that the port has the 50-foot-deep channel that is considered key to its current prosperity.

"She truly was the queen of the port," he said. "She was a tiny woman but she was as mighty as the ships at its docks."

Bentley will be interred alongside her late husband, William Bentley, at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

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